There’s a lot to be said for a central character. A protagonist, an anti-hero, a multifaceted and deeply personal reason in which to place your care and patience. Films and novels can’t exist without them, and a more abstract argument can be made for the visual arts, but music is generally left without that point of inception. We invest in albums for melodies, songwriting and soul; we rarely find ourselves ‘rooting’ for the characters involved.
But that’s what makes Erika M Anderson so wonderfully intoxicating. The South Dakotan singer-songwriter’s EMA project emerged from the ashes of a relationship and artistic collaboration in the dissonance of Gowns, and every aspect of her songs opens her up in such devastatingly (and shockingly) true ways. She becomes a remarkably easy person to fall in love with – at least from a masculine perspective. The stories told on Past Life Martyred Saints are all incredibly and unflatteringly personal. Sometimes these sorts of albums are limited by the sogginess of the real-world influence involved, but Anderson also has the rare gift of transcribing her emotional destitution into gorgeously unique sonic landscapes, and flipping the usual dead language of a break-up album into some of the most stirring lyrical turns of the year.
Martyred Saints comes together like a set of experiences, all individualized and given their own specific definitions. The most outwardly stunning is California, a brooding, broken anthem for the strung-out hearts of the world. Amidst distant, taut noise-folk thumps, Anderson unravels line after line of crushing imagery. “I bled all my blood out / but these red pants don’t show that / my friends don’t even know that / and when I sold them I sold that.” And: “Wasted away alone on the plains / what’s it like to be small town and gay?” And: “You’ve corrupted us all with your sexuality / tried to tell me love was free.” And: “What does failure taste like? To me tastes like dirt / I’m begging you, please look away.” It’s all packed into a shivering four minutes, Anderson ranting with such ferocious articulation that her plight absolutely demands attention.
As the album deepens her persona slowly starts to decay from within. Apparently recorded in a trance-like state, Marked finds Anderson leaving behind her poetic chops, letting her voice take on a husked, zombie-like texture. She repeats the haunting line, “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark,” until the words lose their shock and mutate into a deeply perturbing yearn for a lost love. She sounds disfigured, foul, but also bitingly sincere – literally falling apart as the song goes on. Breakfast begins as a quiet nursery rhyme and slowly grows into an angry outcry, perhaps at Anderson’s own neglectful mother. She’s most frazzled on Butterfly Knife, probably the album’s most direct rock song; she splits her voice into a dozen parts. Some scream in agony, some garble in the bellows of the mix, and some join in a deeply resonating line: “You went and fucked your arms up / you always talked about it / they thought I’d never do it / but I knew, I knew, I knew someday / 20 kisses with the butterfly knife.”
Most of these songs are centered on a specific respite. California repeats a tattered “I’m just 22, I don’t mind dying,” while the tenderness of breakfast reminds us that “mamma’s in the bedroom, don’t you stop”. Marked and Butterfly Knife are the most prominent, and these moments are the sort of claws of the album. They bury themselves deep into your psyche, gradually revealing the density of their despondency. Each of these songs needs time and rumination for the listener to fully conceptualize their place in Anderson’s world, a feat that calls back to the sheer capability of her poetry.
This is a very dark album. The only patches of light – like the recurring matriarchal themes, the constant cathartic sense, are all scuffed with a sense of uncertainty, and occasional malignancy. Even as the closer Red Star ramps up to a triumphant end, (transcending her heartsickness “like a red star”) Anderson’s dying voice calms to a quiet “blue scar”, leaving her fate delectably ambiguous. Her brilliant, visceral talent for stormy melodies and untouchable lyrical knack makes her an astonishingly universal figure. We can use the songs for ourselves, transcribing the suicide of Butterfly Knife to our own lives, or we can simply let ourselves be enraptured by her storytelling itself. Either way, Past Life Martyred Saints is an album that leaves a mark.